… and a post short.
I had two writing deadlines for March 15th, and I could only make one of them. Here’s the post I wanted to put up yesterday:
Today is the deadline for writers to get their applications in for VONA 2015. I’m not applying to VONA this year, but my heart is with everyone who is applying. I mentioned VONA to a friend a couple of weeks ago, and said I was feeling sad about not going this year, and she wondered what the point of going would be. After all, she asked, haven’t you already been a bunch of times?
And sure, if three is “a bunch,” I’ve been a bunch of times, but … why on earth would that matter? If you tasted the most delicious food in the world, would you decline a second, third, four-hundredth taste simply because you’d already tried it? My friend, course, doesn’t understand VONA. How could she, when she’s never been?
So, why have I been three times (and why will I apply again in the future)? Here’s the answer I gave to that question when I was asked to address it for VONA’s newsletter:
The simplest truth for why I return to VONA is …. it’s VONA. A place where I will be surrounded by a universe of talent, where no one will ever say my characters “don’t sound black,” where I’ve never had to explain why my narrator talks about her dead relatives in the present tense, where I will be nurtured by amazing writers, where I can expand the loving, supportive, we’ll-kick-your-butt-when-you-need-it community I’ve been building since my first workshop in 2010. I will go back as many times as VONA will have me.
Just before leaving for Berkeley, I was fired from a job I’d loved and worked hard at for 12 years. I’d spent the weeks between that moment and getting on the plane questioning – my judgment, my decisions, my options, my skills. I was grateful to be able to go to VONA, but worried that going was a luxury I shouldn’t afford myself – surely putting my head down and finding a job was the wiser, more important focus. On Tuesday, I stepped out onto the balcony during break. a classmate stepped out beside me and put her arm through mine and it hit me: Oh, right, I’m home. This is family. This is curling up in the palms of my ancestors’ hands. This is the only thing I should be doing now because this is about my soul, about my writing.
I recommend VONA to every writer of color I meet. I’m sure I sound like some crazed zealot when I do, but I am a crazed zealot. It’s VONA, after all. It’s VONA, and I will go back as often as I can because every workshop will move me forward, every workshop will give me something new, every cohort will give me something new, every faculty reading will give me life, every moment sitting quietly in my room reading manuscripts and dreaming will fill my creative well. VONA is different every time, and the “new” it has to offer is always what I need. VONA is also the same every time: always full of beauty and brilliance, always a warm space of welcome and acceptance, always a challenging space that doesn’t let me belittle or disparage myself, always a reminder that I have work to do and that I’m the only one who can do it, always a reminder that I’m not alone.
I’m working on a story right now, a story that’s due tonight. The story takes place in 1856, and the main character is a child who is a slave. As I’m writing dialogue in this story, I have an annoying voice in my ear telling me that the readers won’t find my dialogue “believable” or “accurate” because I’m not writing in dialect, because my slaves don’t sound some stereotypical way slaves are supposed to sound (read: there’s narry a “gwine” or a “massa” in the piece). Every time one of my characters opens his or her mouth, I’m forced to pause for a second and question my decision not to give them that other language.
As I’m wrestling with that irksome critic on my shoulder, I’m thinking about VONA. Every writing workshop I’ve ever taken outside of VONA, I’ve run into someone telling me my characters don’t “sound black.” I have begun to counter by asking if the speaker thinks I sound black. This usually results in flustering the person and derailing the conversation … and I won’t say I mind that a lot, but I mind it some. Why is there only one way my black characters are able to sound? And who decided what that way was? And, if I don’t sound whatever that way is, why would you think my characters would?
It seems a small thing in my “why go back to VONA” response when I say no one’s going to tell me my characters don’t sound black. Trust me that it isn’t small. Conversation starts from a different place at VONA, and that’s gold, that’s precious beyond measure.*
So tonight I’m thinking about all the beautiful people who are applying to VONA. I’m wishing you all inspiration as you write your application essays, and I’m wishing you the opportunity to have that amazing, mind-blowing, soul-filling experience. We all need VONA. As often as we can get it!
It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!
* Of course, finding the right community isn’t only about surrounding myself with people of color. I was in a writers’ group for many years in which I was the only person of color. Aside from the fact that I loved the women in that group, I think one of the reasons I stayed was the fact that no one ever said anything like that to me.